Written by Travis Shosa
A subtle sense of irony permeates through the 16 tracks of Easy Listening, the third album from Philadelphia purveyors of power pop 2nd Grade. Allusions to rock stardom spill from front-man and lyricist Peter Gill’s pen with regularity: opener “Cover of Rolling Stone” crams references to the subject magazine, MTV, VH1, and “Refugee” and “Free Fallin’” into its 74 seconds. It’s a rallying cry for mainstream success, a desperate plea for something bigger and better: filtered through a soaring, echoey lo-fi jam more closely aligned with the works of Robert Pollard than that of Tom Petty. It could be labeled a nonsensical approach taken at face value. But as it unfolds, Easy Listening is revealed as a love letter to the dream rather than its realization.
In contrast to 2020’s Hit to Hit, Easy Listening is a more thematically focused effort. Where it pulls away from the rockist motif, the overarching theme of longing is present. This theme even extends to “Kramer in LA,” the closest thing to a novelty on the album. Narrated from the perspective of Seinfeld’s Kramer, he addresses a letter to Jerry after relocating to Los Angeles in a bit of meta sitcom fanfic. As he details his struggles adjusting to the “Hollywood hustle” over hypnagogic jazz guitar, he admits to missing New York City and his friends.
The next silliest song on the album, “Teenage Overpopulation,” is presented as a straightforward teen anthem but is instead a satirical Trojan horse rife with tongue-in-cheek boomer-isms. Gill complains about their cellphones, “stems and seeds,” and “sharing spit.” The annoyance, on some level, may be genuine. But Gill is also aware that to extend any more serious blame towards the youth is utterly ridiculous. A teen make-out session will not generate enough heat to burn holes in the ozone: the adults already have that covered. As it fades out on the chorus, an assortment of teens living and dead, fictional and non, are listed underneath. There is no distinction between That ’70s Show’s Kelso and Boy Meets World’s Topanga versus The Replacements’ Tommy Stinson and environmental activist Greta Thunberg. The only thing that matters is their canonization and that Gill romanticizes the canon.
Throughout Easy Listening, Gill’s affinity for pop culture is nigh inescapable. “Teenage Overpopulation” calls back to a lyric from Big Star’s “Thirteen,” which itself refers to The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice to Let It Be” is named for the songs from The Beach Boys and The Beatles (and perhaps the album from The Replacements). The lead single “Strung Out on You,” which pulls double duty as a clap-along slacker ode and cooing love song, comes out nearly untouched but still sees Gill specify that he doesn’t just cry: he cries like Liv Ullmann. At times, it feels like rock’s answer to Ready Player One–something much easier to stomach given the occasional lyrical reprieve and Gill’s ability to craft beautiful, addictive melodies.
Melodies don’t get much prettier than the ones on “Me and My Blue Angels.” Further accentuated by its thick, sludgy opening chords, they dissipate into chiming sheets that gently carry Gill’s heartfelt homage to his band: comparing the grace of their play to that of the flight patterns of Blue Angel stunt planes. At barely over a minute and a half, it stands as fully formed and wanting of nothing: exemplary of the efficacy of Gill’s approach to songwriting. Elsewhere, the easy swaying rhythms of “Hands Down” recall the understated charms of Evan Dando’s The Lemonheads.
Easy Listening does have some minor sequencing issues, with the album coming across as oddly segmented. The five tracks that open it are pure pop gold before “Beat of the Drum” emerges with a minimalist stomp that would make Ramones seem ambitious: if not for the shrieking feedback on top of it. “Poet in Residence” and “Kramer in LA” fill out the album’s experimental suite, the former an effortlessly cool transmission adorned with cowbell and drenched in reverb: it’s as though it were recorded on a boombox underwater. Clustering these together isn’t necessarily a poor play, but the stretch of “Hand of the Brand” to “Controlled Burn” suffers for being bunched together the way it is. Many of these tracks are among the shortest and most sketch-like on the album. As they come one after the other, it feels as though 2nd Grade is trying to rush towards the conclusion in Easy Listening’s second half.
But it’s a lovely conclusion. The title ballad that puts a bow on Easy Listening’s ruminations on the “other” that always seems to be absent from our lives is stripped-down, heart-on-your-sleeve stuff: winding and nebulous in the way only true introspection is. It’s not fit for arenas, but it’s set to jerk tears in more intimate settings. “When I float down the stream / Dreaming a dream of easy listening / It’s so hard for me to tell you / What I really mean,” Gill sings atop a persistent hiss. It’s an admittance of contradictory communication and the tendency to relate when embodying (“Kramer in LA”) or referring to (many other tracks) another character. He confesses as himself that he has trouble being himself. In this way, the dream is an exercise in both empathy and self-discovery, not simply some shallow pining for fame or fortune. And it’s in these moments that belie the surface-level jokes and references and use them to strike at deeper truths where it’s easy to buy into the power pop renaissance and to look at 2nd Grade as an important leader in its modern resurgence.
Travis Shosa is the founder and editor-in-chief of Stamens/Pistils/Parties. Formerly the runner of COUNTERZINE, he has bylines at Pitchfork, The Alternative, and Post-Trash among others.
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